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NFL Draft preview: Top 10 running backs

Joe Rutter
| Sunday, April 15, 2018, 3:57 p.m.
LSU running back Derrius Guice scores a touchdown in front of Notre Dame linebacker Drue Tranquill during the second half of the Citrus Bowl on Monday, Jan. 1, 2018, in Orlando, Fla.
LSU running back Derrius Guice scores a touchdown in front of Notre Dame linebacker Drue Tranquill during the second half of the Citrus Bowl on Monday, Jan. 1, 2018, in Orlando, Fla.

1. Saquon Barkley

Penn State, 5-11, 230

Barkley cemented his status as the most exciting runner at the NFL Combine and highest-graded player in his class when he ran the 40 in 4.4 seconds and had a 41-inch vertical jump and 29 repetitions in the bench press. At Penn State, he did it all in his three seasons. One negative last season was his production in losses to Michigan State and Ohio State: a combined 107 yards rushing on 35 carries.

2. Derrius Guice

LSU, 5-11, 218

Guice is trying to follow in Leonard Fournette's footsteps as the next big-time back to come out of LSU. In 2016, while Fournette was battling injuries, Guice led the SEC in rushing despite starting just six games. Last year, he was the running back who wasn't healthy, although he started 11 games and rushed for 1,251 yards and 11 touchdowns.

3. Sony Michel

Georgia, 5-11, 215

A late bloomer, Michel didn't start regularly on his own team as he played alongside Nick Chubb, another early-round prospect. Michel ran for 1,227 yards in 2017 for the national championship runner-up, and he averaged 7.9 yards per carry. Not bad for someone who started just two games last season.

4. Ronald Jones

USC, 6-0, 200

Could Jones be the next great USC running back? That's what he was banking on when he left school after his junior season. He punctuated his collegiate career by rushing for 1,550 yards and 19 touchdowns on 261 carries. The yardage and touchdowns each ranked in the top 10 nationally.

5. Nick Chubb

Georgia, 5-10, 225

Had Chubb not torn an ACL as a sophomore, he could have declared for the draft last year as a junior. His most productive season was in 2015, as a freshman, when he rushed for 1,547 yards and 14 touchdowns. Returning from his injury in 2016, Chubb rushed for 1,130 yards and increased his total to 1,345 yards last year, with 15 touchdowns while helping lead the Bulldogs to the national championship game.

6. Rashaad Penny

San Diego State, 5-11, 224

Penny was the nation's leading rusher in 2017, amassing 2,248 yards on 289 carries. He scored 23 touchdowns and finished fifth in the Heisman Trophy voting. Detractors will say he piled up big numbers against Mountain West competition. He also can help on special teams. He scored twice on kickoff returns and once on a 70-yard punt return.

7. Kerryon Johnson

Auburn, 5-11, 212

His patient running style reminds some of Le'Veon Bell, and he grew up rooting for the Steelers. Johnson declared for the draft after his junior season, when he rushed for 1,391 yards and 18 touchdowns on 285 carries. He also caught 24 passes for 194 yards and two scores. He is projected to be selected in the second or third round.

8. Kalen Ballage

Arizona State, 6-2, 228

Ballage has good speed — 4.46 seconds in the 40 — for a runner his size. He also was used as a pass catcher and kickoff returner at Arizona State. Trouble was, he wasn't a full-time starter, splitting carries with Demario Richard. This resulted in only 669 yards rushing and six touchdowns last season.

9. Nyheim Hines

N.C. State, 5-8, 197

Hines recorded the fastest time of any running back at the NFL Combine (4.38 seconds), and he rushed for 1,112 yards and 12 touchdowns last season. He's also versatile, returning punts and kicks during his career at N.C. State. Size is the biggest drawback for Hines, as he is one of the smallest runners in his class. He is projected to be taken in the third or fourth round.

10. Royce Freeman

Oregon, 5-11, 238

A four-year workhorse at Oregon — he had at least 244 carries in three of his four seasons — Freeman finished as the school's all-time leading rusher. The workload may scare off some teams. As a senior, he rushed for 1,475 yards and 16 touchdowns while averaging 6.0 yards per carry.

Homegrown big school

Justin Crawford

West Virginia, 6-2, 202

Crawford reached 1,000 yards in each of his two years at West Virginia. He had 1,061 rushing yards and seven touchdowns last season after amassing 1,184 yards and 7.3 yards per carry as a junior when he was named the Big 12 Newcomer of the Year.

Homegrown small school

Jarvis McClam

Seton Hill, 5-11, 202

A former wide receiver, McClam rushed for 905 yards and nine touchdowns as a senior. He also caught 34 passes for 396 yards. He was one of two running backs who attended the Cal (Pa.) pro day for small-school prospects.

Best fit for the Steelers

Kerryon Johnson, Auburn

He gets the nod because he patterns his game after Le'Veon Bell, and he could be around on the second day of the draft if the Steelers choose to draft Bell's eventual successor in the backfield.

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